Imagine a cast of 50 musicians spanning two countries, three recording studios and as many engineers, a superstar producer, a Grammy-winning mix engineer, and a dazzling acoustic guitar duo—it’s Rodrigo y Gabriela and C.U.B.A.’s Area 52. Any record featuring the Mexican guitar slingers performing some of their most popular tracks is reason enough to shell out cold, hard cash. But once Rodrigo Sánchez (lead guitar) and Gabriela Quintero (rhythm guitar, percussion) joined forces with producer Peter Asher and film composer Hans Zimmer, this project took on a life of its own.
“The original idea was just to make a project in-between albums,” explains Sánchez from L.A. “We thought, ‘Let’s put this out so we can take a break and the label will be at peace with us.’ Then I had to come up with an idea! At the beginning we just laid down tracks, then it grew as the label embraced the idea. Then we really got into the project. We changed all the songs; it grew on us immensely. But it wasn’t planned this way.”
Like Moby Dick devouring a whale-ship of horrified sailors, Area 52 was the kind of mammoth undertaking that could have easily swallowed up lesser artists. Dial up any track—“Santo Domingo,” “Master Maqui,” “Juan Loco”—and the music is compelling, startling, like a heavy-metal symphony for hardcore flamenco kids. The duo’s custom-made Hermanos Conde guitars race like the wind, brass shouts and Latin percussion blasts assail the senses, drum set rhythms whirl like El Diablo, and sensuous strings tease the cerebral cortex. In true Latin fashion, Area 52 is over the top, embracing machismo and dazzling musicianship. And with Peter Asher and Hans Zimmer onboard—both of whom employed Sánchez and Quintero to perform on the Puss in Boots and Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks—Area 52 merits a focused technical dissection.
The recording logistics were challenging. Sánchez and Quintero cut basic guitar tracks at their Lumbini Studio in Ixtapa, Mexico. The couple and their files were then flown to Abdala Studios in Havana, Cuba, where the music was played to the assembled rhythm section/percussion ensemble/orchestra. Once arrangements were fleshed out, and translations sorted, Sánchez and Quintero recorded scratch tracks with the rhythm section. Percussion, brass, and strings were then overdubbed. Finally, Sánchez and Quintero re-tracked their parts back at Lumbini. Engineer Rafa Sardina mixed the entire project at his L.A. studio.
“We used DPA mics on the guitars,” Sánchez says. “We experimented with different positioning all the time. The best sound is not right on the hole, because it sounds very boomy, especially with these guitars. You should get in between the last frets and the body. That is a good position because you can get the full sound for the guitar. For Gab’s guitar, you have to go all the way to the end, where the bridge is. She’s a different player, and she does a lot of body percussion stuff. The playing is quite loud. We put the mics probably 10 inches away. Especially with Gab, she needs more room because [when] her right hand moves, she feels uncomfortable if the microphone is too close.”
Engineer Gabriel Benitez Herrera manned a SSL Logic 4056 G+ console at Havana’s Abdala Studios, one of the city’s most prestigious recording environments. While Cuba continues to suffer economically, you almost wouldn’t know it here. Abdala’s equipment includes a Studer A 827, a slew of outboard and software processing, and cherished mics from Neumann and Telefunken, as well as AKG and Shure.
“It’s not state-of-the-art,” advises Asher, “but they have some cool microphones and a full-on Pro Tools system that worked, and that’s all you need these days—along with a good room, which it definitely had. We used their engineer, who was terrific. Occasionally I would suggest a different mic or position for a livelier sound. They tend to record things close and dead, and I am always trying to capture a bit of the actual room, because we were in a really good-sounding room and I like to get that on tape. They tended to be on the safe side, maybe stick something in an iso booth and mic it close. I would say, ‘Let’s leave the door open and put a mic outside as well.’ I was pushing for a bit more live and a bit more room as an option.”
Like recording a soundtrack, or perhaps a Broadway show with a cast of hundreds, Herrera had his work cut out for him.
“With respect to how I manage the recordings in such a large recording,” he stated (via translator Paul Dryden), “I try to know in advance [whether by phone or email] what it is the artist wants to achieve with the process. For example, what sort of musical style they are looking to record and what format they’d like to do it in. And at the base, I organize my recording location. Even when you’ve done these sorts of recordings plenty of times, each one is completely different than the next, and you have to be ready for adjusting once the process actually begins.”
That left Peter Asher to act as de facto producer, therapist, bottle-washer, and one-man clean- up crew. Asher was the final voice, reediting the arrangements into a cohesive whole.
“One of my biggest concerns about the whole project was not to lose them,” Asher says. “We had really brilliant Cuban arrangements and amazing Cuban musicians who can wail away and fill in all the percussion breaks and play wonderfully, but we didn’t want to lose what this album is all about, Rod and Gab’s playing and their tunes, which people already knew. So part of my duty as an advisor was to not lose Rod and Gab in the mixture. We worked hard not to do that. In the end we totally succeeded, it sounds like a Rod and Gab album with all this cool instrumentation, not the other way around. Every time we rearranged something, that was my test, my guideline. We wanted our stars out front and center but kept the genius of what [arranger] Alex [Wilson] and the musicians added.”
In the end, Sánchez and Quintero had the final vote. And as concerned as they were about pulling off this epic adventure of a recording, it was still about maintaining their identity, their style.
“I don’t know what our style is, and I am happy I don’t know,” Sánchez laughs. “I try to get rid of all the labels in my life and that’s a difficult one. If I have something in my life that doesn’t have a label, it’s the music we play. I’d rather keep it that way.”
Read interview extras and outtakes.